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Carved bone reveals rituals of prehistoric cannibals

A patterned prehistoric human bone from an archaeological site in Somerset has revealed that the practices of ancient cannibals were ritualistic, and not simply about survival.

Natural History Museum-led research on the human remains from Gough’s Cave shows that a forearm bone was filleted, then marked with a zig-zag pattern before being broken open to extract the bone marrow.

'The sequence of modifications performed on this bone suggests that the engraving was a purposeful component of the cannibalistic practice, rich in symbolic connotations,' says Dr Silvia Bello, researcher in human origins at the Museum and lead author on the study.

Cannibal customs

The human remains date from around 14,700 years ago, when the cave was occupied by Ice Age Britons. Through excavations, scientists found human bones intermingled with butchered animal remains, and a range of flint, bone and ivory artefacts.

Earlier studies carried out by the Museum established the cannibalistic habits of the inhabitants. Characteristic scratches and marks on the human bones show that they were butchered in the same manner and with the same tools as animal bones. Many of the human bones show human teeth marks, and have been broken open so that the marrow could be extracted.

However, there is no indication on the skeletons that the humans had suffered violence, so it is likely that they died of natural causes. While the exact intent of the inhabitants' cannibalistic practices will never be certain, previous discoveries already suggested that it was not simply a matter of cannibalism for survival.


Carefully prepared human skull-cups have also been found in Gough’s Cave, showing that cannibalistic practices went beyond mere survival needs

Some of the skulls in the cave show evidence of having been carefully modified to produce skull- cups, rather than roughly stripped of their flesh. The craniums were removed from the rest of the skull and rough edges chipped off to produce bowl-like objects, showing that the living inhabitants were not just treating the deceased as food.

The new research reinforces these findings. 'The way the bone was modified suggests that the filleting of human bodies during cannibalism and the engraving of this human bone were intricately related, as part of a ritual,' says Dr Bello.

Reading the bones

The researchers examined under a microscope the marks made on the bones by the stone tools. By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.

The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.

Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.

‘The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,’ says Dr Bello.

Figure sawing and scraping action and direction of the incisions

Details of the incisions on the engraved human bone. Magnified images of the area inside the black box close to the top of the image show the different types of incisions. Red arrows indicate the to-and-fro sawing incisions, and the blue arrows show scraping incisions.

Patterned bones

The zig-zag patterning on the bones is similar to marks on artefacts made by the Magdalenians, who lived across Western Europe at this time. For example, the pattern was found in France on tools made of animal bone. However, the subject of Dr Bello’s research is the earliest example of engraved human bones that archaeologists have found.

‘There is no doubt that the zig-zagging incisions on the arm bone from Gough’s Cave are engraving marks, produced with no utilitarian purpose apart from an artistic representation,’ says Dr Bello.

An engraved baton made of reindeer antler, also found in Gough’s Cave. The cave's inhabitants frequently carved animal bone.

Ritual behaviour

But what exactly was behind this ritualistic behaviour? According to Dr Bello, we can only speculate.

‘Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.

'Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.’

The Museum acknowledges the continued support of the Longleat Estate in allowing access and study of the Gough’s Cave collection.

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